In our visit with Dr Diane Schallert, professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, we hear the story of the introduction of synchronous online chat to her courses in the mid 1990s. Her enthusiasm for learning is matched by her fascination for how people learn together both by talking out loud and through keyboards. Diane shares the important research she and her students have conducted into how typing changes the interactions in classrooms, allowing those students who may not have had an opportunity to speak up to gain a new voice. She includes tips for instructors - and others - who want to facilitate rich online conversations for learning.

Be sure to listen until the end for a hopeful message about online politeness.

Learn More

Exploring Possible Selves Through Sharing Stories Online: Case Studies of Preservice Teachers in Bilingual Classrooms (2018) Rachel Gaines, Eunjeong Choi, Kyle Williams, J. Hannah Park, Diane L. Schallert, Lina Matar

Being Polite While Fulfilling Different Discourse Functions in Online Classroom Discussions (2008) Diane L.Schallert, Yueh-hui Vanessa Chiang, YangjooPark, Michelle E.Jordan, Haekyung Lee, An-Chih Janne Cheng, Hsiang-Ning Rebecca Chu, Soon Ah Lee Taehee Kim, Kwangok Song

Intellectual, Motivational, Textual, and Cultural Considerations in Teaching and Learning with Computer-mediated Discussion (2003) Diane L Schallert, JoyLynn Hailey Reed and the D-Team


Karen French: Welcome to Learning from Texas Education Innovators, a podcast series hosted by the Office of Instructional Innovation in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Karen: Today we're back with Professor Diane Schallert for Texas Education Innovators. We're going to talk about learning from discussion. Diane, what caused you to become interested in talk?

Diane Schallert: Well, so nice of you to ask me.

I had been interested in how people learn from words, probably all of my academic life, maybe even before that. But I've always been fascinated with how language is such an important contributor to how you frame the world, how you see the world. So, I was interested in how we do that. And as part of that and reflecting the kind of view I had of learning, which is that learning is a dialogue with ideas, I had been encouraging in my own teaching, students discussing the ideas that we were talking about. I can't manage to just talk without feeling that they're dialoguing with me. Even if I go off on a soap box or off on a rant and I don't pause at all. But if their eyes stay with me and if they respond to what I'm saying, and if they laugh at the right places, then I feel I'm dialoguing with them. So I've always liked discussion in class. I want discussion in class.

And, I had this this amazing opportunity one time… a student in rhetoric, Wayne Daniels, asked me to be on his dissertation committee. He had taken my psychology of learning class, and as part of that he thought I might be interested in his topic. And, his topic was the use of linked computers in a lab where undergraduates were discussing literature. So this, these were English classes, regular English classes, and as part of those literature courses that were going on, the English Department had decided that discussions in class are often monopolized by usually by boys, by men, young men. And, young women have a hard time getting into the conversation and they're usually monopolized by three or four people in a class group. And the rest of the class group doesn't... gets to be audience to the interactions that are, that are going on amongst the four or five main speakers of the class, but the rest of them have a hard time getting into the conversation flow. The English Department had set up a lab where there would be these linked computers, and the students would continue the discussion that might have started in class by typing messages onto a shared public space that would then appear on the computer screen. And Wayne asked me to be on his dissertation committee and in the dissertation he described what went on, and he had some samples of the talk. And, as I read it, I thought, "wow, that is so fun" because you see how people are growing in their understanding or how they're building on each other's ideas, sort of, you know, in a way more clearly than if you listen to an audiotape. Partly because transcribing oral talk, especially classroom discussion is so difficult and is so time consuming.

Karen: So we should probably back up. You are in the Department of Educational Psychology, in HDCLS.

Diane: Yes. Right.

Karen: Which is… what do you all study?

Diane: So the name of the area at the time.. but but currently it's Human Development, Culture, and Learning Sciences. At the time, it was Learning, Motivation, and Instruction, that was the name of my program area. When I got this idea.

Karen: Ok. So the basic thing that you study is how people learn?

Diane: That's right. That has been my specialty all these years. How people learn. And I'm also always offering classes that have something to do with language. So, a seminar on writing, a seminar on comprehension processes, psycholinguistics, that's one of my favorites.

Karen: So when your student asked you to be on his dissertation committee, and you were a professor in ‘how people learn’ and you saw these networked computers. When was this?

Diane: This was in the late 80s.

Karen: Wow, it's a long time ago. Mainframe computers?

Diane: It was... it was so clunky.

Karen: Wow

Diane: But the program, it was called Daedalus.

Karen: Okay

Diane: It was actually called DIWE which I think stood for Daedalus Interface Writing Environment or something like that. It was meant to have several tools that would help composition instructors teach writing. But, one of the little tools was a chat program, and at first the students didn't quite know what to make of that. Most students had never had that experience. Remember this is before cell phones, before text messaging, people didn't know anything about that. They didn't... about how you... about all the wonders that were about to hit them in the development of our technology. So there there was... it was... it was interesting to introduce it every time to people, because they were unfamiliar with a situation where you could talk in a group but by writing, and have it that your words appeared on... in front of you on the computer screens.

Karen: Don't I remember that Daedalus came out of Gallaudet University?

Diane: So one of the reasons that the English Department had come upon this tool, is that one of their faculty members had visited Gallaudet University and they had found it there. They had found the use of the tool at Gallaudet University. And as you know, Gallaudet University is dedicated to the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. And one of the things they were using the written discussion mode was partly to integrate the people on campus. Sometimes it would be the faculty member or a staff member or a student who might be a hearing person with the people who weren't hearing people, and the the common language would then be written English.

In any case, the university had as it always has had as a goal that their students are in a sense bilingual ASL and English, and in particular written English. Access to the written forms of English is a… is a highly sought-after goal for their students, because they want them to read and write well as they graduate from the university. So, they had that in their classes and they would, the students would in a sense be practicing the use of English and of how to communicate with each other, as well as, being more inclusive of the few people in the class who might not be proficient in ASL. So, the English Department faculty member who who brought it over to our campus, I'm going to attribute it to Jerome Bump. I believe that's who it was but I would need to check if that's exactly the person who brought it over to the campus.
But in any case, the idea was that what the person recognized right away is the the fact that everyone had access and not just one person whose raises their hands faster than anyone else or one person who spoke out or blurted it into the oral discussion. And that that would help with the the sort of concerns that some voices are not having a chance to be part of the classroom discussion.

Karen: So once you saw it with him, you were able to... you take it back and start using it?

Diane: Well I ... I ... right away. I read the dissertation, went to the final oral, thought to myself, "I want to try this." I asked Wayne at the time, "Do you think we could do this over in the College of Education?" And he said, "I think so. I think let's try." And then he… he helped me bring the software into one of our labs and then we set it up. And we, my class would come into the lab and we would be all on a, it was called a LAN, local area network. It wasn't the internet that, that, that, kept the conversation, it was a local area network, and the and the conversation would then be held only in those computers. And then, and I... the first class was 1994 that’s where I used online discussions. And immediately, I saw the potential for doing research with those transcripts that you could produce at the conclusion of every class. So it was so exciting to to think that you could have a record of an... of a classroom discussion. Print it out immediately after it had occurred, you know, that was like... that's so beautiful because it takes forever if you're trying to transcribe an oral discussion.

Karen: So what did you find?

Diane: The things we found out, like the very first thing we wanted to know is, you know, do people talk more than they do in oral? Do they like it more or do they like it at least as much as they do in oral? So, at first it was always in comparison to what would happen in an oral discussion. And the very first thing I found out, and this is what I tell anyone who wants to use this in a discussion: don't think it's the same as an oral discussion or don't expect it to be in every way better than a normal discussion. It's not. It's just different.

It has different affordances is what we what we now call it. It just offers a different way for students to… to interact and what I found is that some students loved one mode over the other, and then other students loved the other mode over the other. And my job at every semester, when I meet a new group of students and I'm going to have this activity, I take it as a very important part of the introduction of the activity to convince them that you may be used to oral discussion and you may have already decided that you're a person who will never speak in class because you're too shy or you’re… you feel that you're out of your depth, or whatever. What I'm asking you to do is to give it a try and see if the written discussion is your mode.

Every semester there will be someone who's never said a word in class, but who online is an entirely different person. Is a different persona, like, we love this person online, and we listen to her whereas we might not have ever heard those contributions in class orally. In the meantime, it does happen that some students, especially the ones who were really comfortable speaking in class, and who, sort of, had developed a wonderful way of, or they think it's wonderful sometimes the rest of the students don't think it's so wonderful, but they have a way of saying their ideas.And they're funny or they just have their way of doing that, some of those students are not at all happy with the online medium because they can't command the attention of the audience in the same way. And so they're not happy. But I believe that I am usually successful in persuading them that it's fair to give everyone a chance to be in a medium, at least some of the time, in a medium that is their preferred way of communicating with the rest of the class. It’s sort of more democratic in terms of access.

Karen: So you're very explicit with the students: we’re going to do this. We're doing this so that it levels the playing field, changes things around --

Diane: Exactly

Karen: And very little push back from them then?

Diane: Right. Usually very little push back. I have occasionally sort of assumed, like I forget to do my little pitch at the beginning, you know, and to remind them throughout the semester. Sometimes I forget because I'm so used to it that I feel like, do I still need to do that in 2017 or 2018? When I don't persuade them, then they'll have questions like: "Why are we doing this? Couldn't we just turn around look at each other and talk? Like, isn't it strange to be sitting here all on our laptops?" Because now when we do the discussion, we don't move from the class. We don't waste the time to get down to the computer lab like we used to, because we can just do it directly on our laptops. And they'll ask, you know, and then, then I get the chance to give the little spiel about, notice that when we're online, everybody has a keyboard. When we're speaking only one person gets the floor at a time. Even in a small group, you don't all talk, you they'll be a few people in a small group who dominate and it's rare that there's a group where it’s actually equal participation in the group. And then some people will say, "Well but I learn so much by listening to my peers." And I say, "Yes, that's all well and good, and we'll have a chance for that too," because we do have oral discussion in my class. But I remind them that that's kind of selfish in a way: so you learn from everybody else's ideas, but then are you contributing to their learning by talking back to their ideas? You know. So in a written discussion, you can't help but feel that well I should at least say I'm here. So maybe I should ask a question or maybe I should make a comment on what someone else has said.

Karen: Do you require them to say something?

Diane: I actually don't. I've never I've never put that as a... as a requirement, not for.... Well, let's talk first about the difference between synchronous chatting and asynchronous chatting.

Karen: Okay. So what we've been talking about the Daedalus before is a synchronous chat?

Diane: Right.

Karen: Okay.

Diane: Synchronous chatting is at the same time.

Karen: Okay.

Diane: Messages that people are composing. Once they press send appear on everyone's screen within milliseconds and then you get a response within milliseconds. Sort of, if you think of it as texting with a good friend who is responsive and who answers your text nearly immediately. That's sort of what it feels like.

Karen: What we used to call chat rooms, but don't really exist so much anymore.

Diane: Right, exactly. What used to be called instant messaging. Asynchronous discussion is more like, in fact the name of one of the main programs for that is called bulletin board. One of the models or the metaphor for an asynchronous discussion is a situation where someone has posted a comment, someone posts a response and maybe pins it to the board right below the response. So, in an asynchronous discussion, you don't have to be on the network at the same time. There might be a lag of even several days, I suppose, although in my class I try to bound the asynchronous discussion to 24 hours or 36 hours or 48 hours. But there's no reason to bound it in time. It could last for a very long time, and the thread could go on for weeks, I suppose.

But the asynchronous discussion is also quite interesting if you think of it as a dialogue and not as an assignment where your teacher has asked you to post a comment on a reading, just how a lot of teachers use discussion board that we have.

Karen: So how do you facilitate it to make it not feel like an assignment where your teacher... how do you change that?

Diane: I think it matters a lot how I always am part of the discussion. I never stay out of the discussion. I sort of feel as if, if I'm asking them to discuss a topic, and it's replacing a class meeting, then my obligation is to be present with them as they're discussing the topic. And that means being very attentive to if a thread is going fine without my… any intervention from me, I might not say anything in that thread. But I often will have at least a post where I'll say, that's just great. What a great example, or just a sort of a spontaneous response that might be seen as evaluative, I suppose. But I mean it more as in what a person would do in a conversation when they're nodding and smiling because someone has said something interesting and smart. They can't help themselves. They.. they show it on their body. The way we do that online is by saying, "Yes, I agree, good job!" or "How do I give you thumbs up on this stupid program that doesn't have emoticons." Some quick response like that. And I model that in my online discussion. So, I'll have some long postings, but I will also have little quick simple ones, and I'll have casual responses that are more on the order of, like, just a very short sentence, a series of short sentences, that are more like points that a person would make. So that they know that it is meant to be a discussion, meant to be a dialogue. So that they feel like they can respond.

Karen: Ok, and that you're paying attention. You're watching, you're there to participate, not to evaluate.

Diane: Right. I definitely want it to be like that. I never post a thread starter that is something like: what did our author say about x? I don't want it to seem like an essay question or like a "gottcha" kind of question. I want it to be a thought-provoking question, and especially I want the discussion to follow their thinking about the reading that we've done. So I'm more… I'm more likely to ask, "What did that article make you think?" And then, they'll respond some interesting idea, or I'll say, "Is there a part of the article you'd like us to concentrate on more because it puzzled you?" And then they'll mention, you know, “boy those statistics were really complicated.” Then I might have a bit of a didactic post on my part. But usually I apologize for the tone at the beginning and then I go off and try to explain it as best I can. But I think keeping that kind of tone out of your messages is really important to encouraging dialogue.

Karen: That gets them to post more than saying, "This is worth two points per post."

Diane: Right. Oh yes, so that's right. Your question was, do I require them to post? So when it's an asynchronous discussion and they're going to be attending class by posting on a discussion board, I tell them at the beginning, “your minimum is three messages. Three posts of whatever length. So long as I see your name three times, you've fulfilled minimum attendance in class, but you're welcome to post more than that.” And most of the time people post more than that.

Karen: Having seen other colleagues’ discussion boards over the years... Because peo… I've seen people, they go to you and they say, "How do I do this?" And you've seen good ones and you've seen bad ones. Do you have any, speaking to your peers now, any “don't do this”?

Diane: I do. I do think that making the students think that you're grading their responses is not a good idea. I feel as if that would be like saying to students in an oral discussion. It depends. I I don't want to tell people what to do, but I want to suggest --

Karen: Based on your experience, you’ve done this awhile... [unintelligible]

Diane: -- Yes, I’ve done it a lot. And my view of the purpose of the written discussion is that it is like the oral discussion. Therefore, what you really want in an oral discussion or in any class interchange, you want people to feel comfortable expressing the things they don't understand and the things that they do. Um … that the thoughts they have that they think might contradict what the teacher is saying right then, and you want them to be able to bring that up. Otherwise the discussion, what's the purpose of it? So, because of that, I would recommend having it that the students don't feel that whatever they write on here is going to lose them points or gain them points. That is like the worst kind of pressure to have on your contributions in a discussion.

Karen: Yeah.

Diane: You know, that someone is going "Huh, A+. No, C-”. You know, what you just said, “Yeah, I guess that’s a B." I mean, this is just like, what kind of a conversation is that? It's just not a conversation.

Karen: But… seems hard.

Diane: Yeah. So I... I recommend that you not grade the posts. I do feel as if, if you saw that people were not participating then you might have to say, "Okay. There is a minimum. I want you to make at least, you know, three comments or at least five comments, whatever it is that you think is appropriate, one comment in each of the forums that have been set up, or whatever. I just want to encourage you to see what's going on there." But once you open the space, they'll write, they’ll… they can't help themselves. They --

Karen: People like to talk if you give them the space.

Diane: -- If you give them the space. And, you give and you make it that they can reflect before they press send, they can reflect on their words and edit and make sure that it captures their meaning, they will contribute.

Karen: So that’s what happens in the discussion space, the asynchronous space.

Diane: Yes.

Karen: Thinking about the chat space, which happens faster, because it is synchronous.

Diane: Yes.

Karen: That brings me back to the question of the differences between 1994 and 2018.

Diane: Yes.

Karen: Are they different now?

Diane: I do see a difference. I mean, it used to be that there would be some people who would be in my class who didn't even know how to turn on the computer.

Karen: Ok.

Diane: I had... so that was you know... we would have to... there was a very steep learning curve for those people, and some of them would say, “I just don't know how to type,” and now that never happens. There is never a problem. They don't even need very much instruction on how to find the proper chat space. People know how to navigate very well through all of the different programs and I've used several different ways of managing the synchronous chat and that is a big difference.

Karen: Do they speak differently? Has texting changed the way they talk?

Diane: I guess that…

Karen: Is it all in shorthand now?

Diane: No, no. Not in my... not in my um…

Karen: So they write out full sentences and have okay grammar?

**Diane:**They write out...

Karen: They are grownups

Diane: Yes, exactly. Now they… they’ll put LOL, you know every once in awhile, or they will have a little like BTW (by the way) as a shorthand. There’ll be a few of those, but they're so few and they're so much the normal ones that I don't even notice them when they're in there. Erm and I might be the one who is… who uses them first in the class, and I would do that just so that they understand that it's perfectly okay to do that. But it, but it's not that you, that you have a transcript full of gibberish that would need a key to translate.

Karen: To understand what they are doing. Okay. So you use the um... you use the synchronous chat in class in part to talk about how people learn, you talk with your students about that. Are there other contexts in which other professors might use it in a different kind of class?

Diane: The written discussion can be used, or should be used, or is is appropriate for just about any content in which classroom discussion was an activity that a teacher used.

Karen: Because it changes the dynamics of the class?

Diane: Right, for the very reason that more access to the space, to the talk space, is allowed. That's the main reason I would recommend it. It's perhaps difficult, if you're in a class that has a lot of symbol use, like I'm thinking of a stats class, but then I don't remember stats classes having classroom discussion. Now though that I can certainly imagine having questions, in a question and answer way, but there might be a better tool for those kind of courses, but that's the only limitation I can think of. But I can't imagine a course in which you would allow classroom discussion or you would want classroom discussion, I can't imagine them not benefiting from the access, giving access to all the students through written discussion.

Karen: Anything that you haven't done with classroom discussion that you still would like to try?

Diane: I I want to say that, one of the things that I hear about, is I hear chat spaces that are, that are actually like Skype, that are audio. Now, that couldn't happen in a classroom because obviously now you're talking to your group members all at the same... I mean then, you're back to oral talk and the rules that apply to oral talk. But I could imagine that would be an interesting comparison.

Karen: More studies.

Diane: More studies in the future.

Karen: That sounds really good. [Crosstalk]

Diane: There's always some wonderful things to talk about. One thing I want to say.

Karen: Yeah.

Diane: One of the worries people have is that because they know how online content often is rife with insults and rude comments that people post in response to something that someone has said. Even in very respectable news outlets, an article will then receive postings that sort of devolve into shouting matches that are not very polite. And I've never found that in my class. In fact, we once analyzed all the transcripts for politeness markers, and you cannot believe how wonderfully polite people are. Partly they see each other in class too. So, they can't go around insulting each other, obviously not. But they are so adept at saying that they disagree with someone or saying that they want to bring up an alternate viewpoint. You know they're so wonderfully good in their use of words that I call polite, you know, they're using the politeness strategies, that are the whole panoply of politeness strategies. And written language, in some ways, requires it even more than oral language.

Karen: Right.

Diane: Because in oral language you can say, "What do you mean?" But you can say it with a smile on your face and the other person knows how you mean it.

Karen: Right.

Diane: But in written language, people are very good about, or my students have been really good about introducing a "what do you mean" comment by saying, “I really love this part, but I couldn't quite understand this other part. What did you mean by what you said in the second part of your message?” and it just impresses me. Their skill at using their comments so politely in online discussion.

Karen: That’s reassuring, isn’t it?

Diane: Yeah. Very reassuring. I think very reassuring.

Karen: Thank you for your time today. I appreciate you.

Diane: Thank you for asking me to talk about something I love.